Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Religious Society of Primates

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Where the crowd is, therefore, or where a decisive importance is attached to the fact that there is a crowd, there no one is working, living, and striving for the highest end, but only for this or that earthly end; since the eternal, the decisive, can only be worked for where there is one; and to become this by oneself, which all can do, is to will to allow God to help you—“the crowd” is untruth. (Søren Kierkegaard, On the Dedication to “That Single Individual”)

One feature of being a primate that I enjoy the least is the way we primates tend to organize our social groups hierarchically. Our penchant for hierarchy is perhaps most obvious in institutions such as the military and the Catholic Church, but it manifests in some way every time more than one primate is present. All one need do is go to a public place such as a coffee shop and watch the interactions within a group of people. This observation is most effective either when the group being watched is far enough away that one cannot hear what they are saying, or if they are speaking a language one cannot understand. Then one has nothing to focus on but body language, which is quite revealing of social hierarchy. If a couple is carrying on a conversation, chances are very good that one of the pair will be doing most of the talking; the other may or may not be listening. In a crowd of three or more people, most likely one person will be a de facto leader, a maker of suggestions and decisions. (Some people made fun of George W. Bush when he said “I’m the decider,” but in fact when more people than one are present, it will soon be evident that one of them is the decider.) This is a tendency one can see even in very young children. There are a few leaders, and the rest, whether they like it or not, are followers. As is the case with chickens, so with it is with us taller bipeds: we have a pecking order, and whosoever gets out of order will soon be pecked back into the proper position. This is a process we call socialization.

Anyone familiar with the academic world will know about the administrative hierarchy of president, vice presidents, provost, vice provosts and a battery of deans, and all the faculty rankings from professor down to lecturer. What some students may not realize is that if the salaries of the instructors were divided by the number of classroom hours, some of their most effective instructors turn out to be paid considerably less than others, have no vote at faculty meetings (and may not even be invited to attend them), are rarely consulted on matters of policy and may be sharing an office with several other instructors at the bottom of the totem pole. There is very little justification for this setup other than that this is how universities were organized in the fourteenth century, and by the time someone has risen to a position of privilege, there is little incentive to make the system more equitable. People at the top of totem poles see no virtue in horizontal poles. I recall one senior professor commenting on a petition for better working conditions that came from seriously underpaid graduate student lecturers, “They want to be where we are, but they don’t want to be where we have all been.” In other words, he had to suffer substandard wages for several years, so why shouldn’t they? After all, being at the bottom of the dog pile builds character, no? How else will one learn how to behave when one gets to the top of the pile if one does not spend time at the bottom?

It could perhaps be argued that there are situations where a hierarchical structure serves a purpose. When confronted with a raging fire, for example, it is no doubt to everyone’s advantage to have a captain who assesses the situation and assigns specific tasks to others who then follow orders without question or complaint. An emergency is no time to have everyone sit in a circle and to wait until the talking stick is passed to him so that he can venture a suggestion that will be carefully and respectfully weighed along with other suggestions and eventually decided by consensus. Fire brigades, police departments and battalions probably work better when there is a hierarchy and everyone in that hierarchy knows exactly where his or her place is. But not every situation is emergent. In most of the ordinary situations in life, there is no need for a hierarchy. And in some, a hierarchy can be a real obstacle.

The one enterprise in life that least needs hierarchy is the very one from which the word “hierarchy” comes, namely, religion. The word comes from two Greek words, hieros (sacred) and arkhein (to lead, to rule), and it originally meant a system of government in which the ruling was done by priests or holy people. Although few countries these days are hierarchies in that original sense of the word, most religious organizations evolve into hierarchies in which those deemed most spiritually advanced are the deciders. This fact, I would argue, helps account for why most religious organizations end up being a grotesque caricature of the very doctrines and values they were founded to propagate.

Many years ago, I was on the board of directors of a Zen Buddhist temple in North America. As a registered charitable organization with tax-exempt status, the temple was required by law to have a board of directors and a constitution. Our constitution specified that the Zen master was president for life of the board and that the president had sole authority to decide all spiritual matters, while the board had the authority to decide secular matters. At one meeting of the board, the order of business was to renew the constitution—another procedure that was required by tax laws to be done periodically. I was unprepared to vote for approval of our constitution until I could be helped to understand what exactly differentiated “spiritual” from “secular” matters. What eventually became clear to me was that whatever decision the Zen master wanted to make, even down to the color of napkins at a potluck dinner, was automatically spiritual. Anything he did not want to be bothered with was secular. It became clear that the entire structure of the organization was designed to preserve the absolute power and authority of one man and that the principal task for everyone else was to learn to be subservient and deferential. Once that was clear to me, it was also clear to me that I must resign from the board of directors and leave that entire organization. As much as I enjoyed, and perhaps even benefited from, the practices of Zen, I did not undertake those practices for the purpose of learning to accept the absolute and often arbitrary power of a fellow human being.

Over the decades I have given a good deal of thought to the question of how best to organize a spiritual community. The more thought I have given to the matter, the more clear it has become to me that the best interests of a spiritual community are served by having no organization at all. Jesus of Nazareth was reported by Matthew (18:20) to have said “For where two or three gather in my name, I am there in their midst.” Now, I have never been a Biblical literalist, but my understanding of this passage is that when a fourth person shows up, Jesus finds somewhere else to go. Four is a good number for a barbershop quartet or a game of bridge, but it is one too many for a spiritual community. When numbers grow, so do perceived collective needs, and before one knows it there is a building and grounds committee, a fund-raising committee and a hospitality committee—not to mention a spirit of rivalry among the committees and hard feelings on the part of those unfortunate congregants who are overlooked to serve on them. In astonishingly short order, all vestiges of spiritual practice have vanished in the ensuing chaos of primates jockeying for position in a social hierarchy.

Institutions have a way of providing a constant supply of distractions. They tend to promote what Indian Buddhists called habitual distraction (abhyasta-vikṣepa), which in turn promotes delusional thinking, a condition that obstructs peace of mind. Distraction (vikṣepa) is a name given to having one’s thoughts scattered (vikṣipta-citta). Each time one allows oneself to be distracted, the tendency to be distracted again is reinforced (abhyasta), and eventually distraction becomes the usual state of one’s mind. Distraction makes it more difficult to be aware of the constant flow of changing perceptions, internal dialogues, judgements and motivations, which in turn hampers the process of stopping unproductive thinking before it leads to troublesome behavior.

Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.
(Søren Kierkegaard)

The Buddha said in a number of places that the social condition most conducive to having a focused mind (samāhita-citta, also known as samādhi) is isolation from other people. Being around others, especially others who talk much and scurry about getting things done, makes mental focus difficult and makes distraction easy. Given that a good deal of what people collectively set out to accomplish is simply not necessary, and given that this is no less true of spiritual communities than of mahjong clubs, the best way for most people to keep their minds safe and sound is to avoid congregating, even into spiritual communities and organized institutions.

My conclusion, then, is that not only is the best organizational structure of a religious community no organization at all, but the best spiritual community for an individual serious about spiritual practice is no community at all.

What I have said here has been based on my experience. Others may not be similarly constituted, so their experiences may be different; I cannot know for sure, since the only mentality available to me to observe directly is my own. I offer these reflections in the spirit articulated well by Śāntideva:

atha matsamadhātur eva paśyed aparo ’py enam ato ’pi sārthako ’yam

If another whose constitution is like mine should see this, then this person may benefit from it. (Śāntideva, Bodhicaryāvatāra 1.3)

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, June 26, 2015 at 16:12

Posted in Buddhism

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10 Responses

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  1. And yet there are benefits to community, in its companionship and mutual aid. There are even benefits to community in providing insight into one’s own shortcomings. I say this as a rather thoroughgoing secularist who has seen some of the shortcomings involved in egoistic individualism. (And as someone who is perhaps more an egoistic individualist than is good for him).

    Douglass Smith

    Friday, June 26, 2015 at 16:43

  2. … then there is the advice to wander alone like a rhinoceros.

    Douglass Smith

    Friday, June 26, 2015 at 16:45

  3. The Indian rhinoceros is a gregarious animal, so the metaphor is not to be solitary like a rhinoceros, but rather to stand alone like the single horn on a rhinoceros’s nose.

    That notwithstanding, you make excellent points, Douglass. The Buddha is reported to have said that an ideal condition for progress is association with good people (sat-puruṣa-saṃsarga). The worst condition is association with fools (bāla-saṃsarga). The middle path is isolation (viveka). Alas, as the song says, “a good man these days sure is hard to find.” So I find myself more and more gravitating toward isolation.

    Richard Hayes

    Friday, June 26, 2015 at 16:56

  4. Yes, I have wondered about the metaphor. Thanissaro chooses “rhinoceros” in Access to Insight, though somewhat reluctantly. The last stanza echoes your point. In his translation:

    People follow & associate
    for a motive.
    Friends without a motive these days
    are rare.
    They’re shrewd for their own ends, & impure.
    Wander alone
    like a rhinoceros.

    Douglass Smith

    Friday, June 26, 2015 at 17:04

  5. I recall having this discussion fifteen years ago with someone on Usenet. He cited Thanissaro. I cited the Pali (which clearly says rhinoceros horn). Since my discussion partner did not read Pali, he dismissed my textual evidence as invalid, and since Thanissaro is more famous than I, his authority was deemed superior to mine. That discussion was about par for the course on Usenet.

    Richard Hayes

    Friday, June 26, 2015 at 23:07

  6. Dhivan recently had an article published on the word Khaggavisāṇa.


    The Pāli expression khaggavisāṇakappo may either mean ‘like the rhinoceros’ or ‘like the horn of the rhinoceros’. It occurs in the refrain eko care khaggavisāṇakappo at the end of each stanza of the Khaggavisāṇa-sutta and its parallels, and the refrain has been translated by some as ‘one should wander alone like the rhinoceros’ but by some, including K. R. Norman, as ‘one should wander alone like the horn of the rhinoceros’. K. R. Norman has however set out his reasons for regarding ‘like the rhinoceros horn’ as the correct translation, and ‘like the rhinoceros’ as wrong. The present article critically discusses Norman’s reasons, concluding that the expression khaggavisāṇa may be regarded as a deliberately ambiguous compound meaning both the rhinoceros and its horn, or perhaps as a single expression meaning ‘rhinoceros’. The zoological facts are considered, as well as the difficult etymology of khaggavisāṇa, its contextual meaning, its meaning in Jain parallels, and its discussion in Pāli commentaries. The article concludes that ‘like the rhinoceros’ is in fact a correct translation.


    PS One of the zoological facts is that Indian rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) are not very gregarious. “Adult males are generally solitary, except for mating and fighting. Adult females are largely solitary when they are without calves.” though “Groups of two or three young males will often form on the edge of the home ranges of dominant males, presumably for protection in numbers. Young females are slightly less social than the males.” They also come together at mud wallows. But largely the adults are indeed solitary.


    Saturday, June 27, 2015 at 01:21

  7. I think you’re unnecessarily pessimistic and Romantic here, even though I share the feelings about groups and hierarchies. Surely the issue with both authorities and groups is whether they become an end in themselves or whether they actually help us? In at least some cases an authority or a community may be more integrated and a better judge of conditions than oneself, so their perspective then becomes useful to us in addressing conditions. So the issue then becomes that of avoiding absolutised or dogmatic groups, not of groups altogether. I’d agree with you that formalised institutions can more easily become absolutised, which makes them harder to work with – but they’re still often necessary.

    As a version of the Middle Way I’d also disagree with your statement in your comment above that it consists in isolation. If the Middle Way is a navigation between absolutised beliefs (implicit or explicit, positive or negative), in relation to groups it will be a navigation between absolute acceptance of the group and absolute denial of the group. Either of those extremes ignore the helpful things the group actually has to offer us. Isolation offers a useful state in which to reflect and integrate one’s experience, but as an end in itself it can rapidly wear thin. One may have a helpful solitary retreat for weeks or months, but who would really find it useful to take a permanent solitary retreat?

    I also find it ironic that in the midst of this exaggerated Romantic rejection of the group you are also apparently still relying on it. Why do you need to blog about it and get our approval? Why do you also quote past authorities from Buddhist or philosophical traditions? Isn’t that just reinforcing the position of the Buddha, Shantideva, Kierkegaard, or whoever, at the top of the pecking order?

    Robert M. Ellis

    Saturday, June 27, 2015 at 01:44

  8. “… but my understanding of this passage is that when a fourth person shows up, Jesus finds somewhere else to go.”

    Laughed out loud at this. It is a peculiar thing about Homo sapiens that while we do generally have a African primate style hierarchy, some of us are more like the Asian orangutan and prefer to spend time away from other members of our species. A solitary life is only possible, I think, when certain conditions are in place: plentiful food and absence of predators (or ability to easily avoid them) are two that come to mind.

    Robin Dunbar, of the famous Dunbar Numbers, published a Penguin Intro to Human Evolution last year (or maybe 2013). It’s a fascinating little book and well worth a read for any rationalist. The book focusses on how advances in our evolution and culture allowed us to live in larger groups and how that promoted our survival and thrival as a species. Using a variety of inferential techniques he is able to conjecture how big our social groupings were at different times in our evolution. But it does tell a story of a social species that exists in large stratified groups, much larger than any other primate. And it is precisely this feature of our species that has promoted success. So hermits are something of a puzzle in evolutionary terms. They have played a very significant role in the the larger religions.

    I’ve come to see civilisation (living together in very large groups of thousands up to millions) as a two edged sword. It provides conditions for the majority to thrive, but it has also warped our relationship to experience (through hyper-stimulation). The other kind of anti- or perhaps contra-social individuals we have nowadays are selfish wealthy business and political leaders who see civilisation as a host body to parasitise. They’re about to let Greece bleed to death in order to head off any challenge to their absolute authority to organise the economy to suit their own needs.

    In the long run people ought not to generalise from the witty musings of misanthropists. Organisations need not be sclerotic and many of them do good. Living together in thousands and millions requires structure and networks. And living isolated is not an option for most people in any case – social animals go mad when isolated from others of their species (this is documented in many species, but plenty of research exists on e.g. the deleterious effects of solitary confinement). Rather than curse the hoi polloi for being hoi polloi, we’re better of trying to figure out how to make life better for them, if they’ll listen of course. The rhinos who dwell on our fringes are sometimes insightful, but if they are resolutely pratyeka they don’t have much to offer. We tolerate rhino-people because they don’t consume too many resources and do occasionally come up with something worth listening to.

    It’s kind of ironic to have posted this on the day that the Supreme Court of the USA said marriage between any two people is a right guaranteed by the constitution.


    Saturday, June 27, 2015 at 02:19

  9. “That discussion was about par for the course on Usenet.”

    Yes unfortunately, and on internet fora, with which I am more recently familiar.

    “It’s kind of ironic to have posted this on the day that the Supreme Court of the USA said marriage between any two people is a right guaranteed by the constitution.”

    Indeed. Kindness and compassion are essentially communitarian sentiments. I adore the poem of the rhino, or of his horn; it speaks to where I often find myself. But there is (dare I say it) a kind of dialectic here between solitary living and some kind of saṅgha. I think that was essential to the Buddha’s message.

    Douglass Smith

    Saturday, June 27, 2015 at 04:31

  10. Douglass, thank you for the clarification on Jayarava’s observation that there was an irony on my posting this on the day of the SCOTUS ruling on marriage. I was unable to see any connection at all, let along any irony, until you provided the link: communitarian sentiments.

    I had been thinking that there was an irony in my posting my reflections on the day when President Obama gave his beautiful eulogy at the AME church in Charleston for Reverend Clementa Pinckney. I watched it on television and was struck by the strong sense of community in that church. Clearly there are people who thrive on togetherness.

    I stand corrected on the behavior of the Indian rhinoceros. Never having met one (or a group of them), I have never observed their conduct. What I have read is that the young tend to form small groups but that adults are solitary wanderers. A number of solitary adults may happen to meet at a watering hole and to greet each other and act playfully for a while, but mostly they go alone. As a card-carrying introvert, I might do rather well as an Indian rhinoceros.

    Richard Hayes

    Saturday, June 27, 2015 at 07:20

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